Thursday, November 17, 2011

Interview With Sean O'Keefe

A couple of weeks ago Sean O'Keefe sold his pitch, Riders On The Storm, to Fox for half a million dollars. The script is about a heist crew that pulls off sophisticated robberies during severe storms. I realized we don't talk about pitching very much on the site, even though it's a huge part of the business. Oftentimes, after you meet someone about your script, you'll pitch them other projects you're working on.  So I thought Sean would be the perfect person to ask, "What's this pitching thing all about?"  Sean is also currently writing a film adaptation of “Apaches” for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney Pictures about the NYPD along with writing partner Will Staples.  Enjoy the interview.

SS: Can you tell us how you got started in screenwriting? What was your background leading up to it? Did you do anything else film-related?

SO: I grew up between two isolated worlds – a cabin in Alaska with no running water and a draconian boarding school in England. As a result movies for me were always a way of feeling connected with the outside world. My final semester in college, I decided to write a spec based on Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and some family friends hooked me up with a meeting with veteran screenwriter Jay Cocks who had worked with Scorsese on “The Age of Innocence.” Jay told me I was crazy – Hollywood would never make it – so I let the idea go. Now, of course, Alex Proyas is making a film based on the material. It’s the same lessen I’ve learned a hundred times: follow your gut no matter what because it’s all you have.

After paralegalling in New York my first year out of school and writing two painfully bad scripts on my lunch breaks, I moved out to LA and worked in development first for Neal Moritz at Original Film then Michael Ovitz at APG, the film production arm of AMG. I then co-founded a film and video game production company called Union Entertainment with Rich Leibowitz.

Around that time, my father passed away and I spent a week in ICU waiting for the inevitable to happen. It turned out to be a period of reckoning for me. I realized you only have so much time to do what you want in life, so I made the choice to return to screenwriting.

SS: When was the first time you got paid to write? How many scripts had you written before you got that first paycheck?

SO: The first time I got paid was in 2003 with my former writing partner, Will Staples. We had gone out with a Mayan period piece spec (my fifth script at that point) that didn’t sell but was well received for the writing and two weeks later Sony called up and asked if we wanted to write King Tut for Roland Emmerich. We came up with a take, Roland and the studio liked it, and the rest is ancient history…

SS: I’ll be murdered if I don’t ask this question. But how did you get your agent?

SO: I was lucky in that in my capacity as a producer and exec I had dealt directly with a number of agents and managers around town. My agent, Nicole Clemens at ICM, and my manager, Brian Lutz, were both reps who were excellent at representing their clients when I was on the other side of the table. When it came time for me to devote myself to writing again, they were the first people I reached out to.

SS: In your opinion, what’s the most difficult thing about screenwriting, and what’s the best way to tackle that difficulty?

SO: Knowing that I am writing for an audience is the hardest aspect of the process for me. The moment I look up from the page and see the faces in the proverbial crowd – studio execs, agents, managers, other writers – I feel stage fright setting in. I start to second guess myself. I wonder if I have the right character for my story or the wrong story for my character. I fall into the trap of perfectionism. The trick is to write as if you are writing purely for yourself, but it’s easier said than done. Oddly, Donald Rumsfeld had some wisdom in this arena: “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” Eventually, you have to stop second guessing yourself and charge into battle.

SS: You’ve obviously been out there, talked to producers, have a beat on their needs. What do producers want these days? Are there some common genres they’re asking for? Do they want the “Next Twilight?” The “Next found footage” script? What are you hearing?

SO: Everybody thinks they want the thing that just performed at the box office but the truth is that they want the next great idea that walks through the door. Your job is to bring them that next great idea. I’ve never been very good at forecasting what the market wants and then tailoring my output accordingly. I run with the movie I most want to write and hope that others feel as excited about it as I do…

Disappointment, however, lurks around every corner in this process. That is why I have a personal rule of thumb, which is my ‘one in ten’ rule. That is for every ten swings at bat you connect with one ball. For every ten meetings or reads, someone connects with what you are trying to do. It’s fuzzy math, but it helps to keep your expectations in check. Not everyone is going to resonate with what you’re doing. But that’s okay – you only need one in ten to actually make real progress. Every studio passed on our Mayan epic, but one liked the writing enough to call us back in. That one call gave birth to our career.

SS: We were having this debate the other day on the site. Should an unknown writer try to break in with something heartfelt and personal to them – something that will bring out their best writing? Or should they write something high concept and marketable, even though they won’t be as emotionally attached to the writing?

SO: Stick with the cliché of writing what’s in your heart. It’s a cliché for a reason. But if it’s a big summer action movie that’s in your heart, then consider yourself lucky.

SS: If you could go back in time and give your younger screenwriter self some advice on how to get to the professional level faster, what would you tell him?

SO: Four things…

Write as much as you can. It’s all about clocking the hours and getting words on the page. In the Gladwellian sense you need to get in your 10,000 hours, so the sooner the better.

Write, rewrite, then move on. Don’t get stuck trying to overly perfect a script in the beginning. You will learn more from cracking a new story than you will from debating where to place your commas.

Avoid the Freshman Writer Trap. The problem is that in the beginning many new writers think they’re the next Robert Towne – and perhaps they will turn out to be – but it will likely take years to know. Don’t assume that you shit gold from the get-go. The likelihood is that your first few scripts will be abominations in hindsight (at least mine were). Humility will keep you open to constructive criticism and ensure that you are learning and progressing.

Run your writing career like a producer. Have a slate of projects – one or two that you are focused on at any point in time and the others that you continue to inch forward as the opportunity arises. Never have just one baby. This is Hollywood. There is no safety net. You need to have a Third World family of projects because sadly not all of them are going to survive.

SS: What is a pitch meeting and how does one go about getting one? Does an agent read your latest script and ask you to come in? Is it something your agent works to set up? Is it you having a previous relationship with the producers and saying, “Hey, I got this new idea I want to come in and pitch you?” How does a writer get one of these things!?

A pitch is a meeting where you make a verbal presentation of a story that you want to sell so that you can be paid in advance to write it as a script.

The three essential ingredients to a pitch are having a sample script that people already like, a story to pitch, and an agent to set the meetings.

Pitches can arise in two basic ways. First, you tell your agent you have a pitch you want to take out to the town and they set meetings with producers who then take it into studios where they have their strongest relationships. Second, a producer brings you an idea and you take it out to the town exclusively with them attached.

SS: With your recent pitch sale, were you going in to specifically pitch them this project – with both sides already knowing what you were going to pitch them? Or was it something that emerged during the course of the meeting?

SO: The pitch meetings were specific to this project, which is the way it typically goes down, but there are exceptions. For example, on “World’s Most Wanted,” a spy thriller we set up at Universal, the original pitch was about a Mexican drug cartel but the exec didn’t respond to the subject matter. He did, however, like the team-versus-team dynamic of the story and said if we could come with a new subject, he would be interested. So we did several weeks of research and found a real-life NATO team that hunts the world’s most wanted criminals. We went back in, employing a similar story with the new subject, and he bought it. It was proof that you can never tell which direction a project is going to break, but you’ll never know unless you try.

SS: Can you tell us how a pitch that leads to a sale works? Are they all different? Do they tell you right there in the room “yes, we’re buying this?” Or does it happen afterwards, once they’ve checked with their superiors?

SO: I dream of the ‘in room’ sale, and I know it has happened to others, but I haven’t been the recipient of that kind of spontaneous largesse yet. For me, selling a pitch has always entailed an agonizing wait – sometimes a few hours, sometimes a few days. Now that the studios have more leverage and they are more picky about what they buy than when I started in the business, they aren’t in the same real-time rush to respond that they used to be back in the glory days of the mid-90s spec market when high concept ideas with poor execution seemed to sell on almost a daily basis. Now execs seem more afraid of being left holding the bag on a project than they do being left out of a sale.

The truth is that very few people at the studio have the authority to buy a pitch without running it up someone else’s flagpole first. If you happen to be in the room with someone who can say ‘yes’ then you’re already doing something very right – in which case keep it up!

SS: People talk about different kinds of pitches. There’s the 5 minute pitch. The 10 minute pitch. And like the longer 20 minute pitch where you pitch the whole movie. I can’t imagine a busy producer able to concentrate for 20 minutes on any writer. Do you follow this formal time-specific pitch list or do you just do it your own way?

SO: I think it depends on where you are in your career as a writer and what the nature of the pitch is – i.e. are you pitching on a rewrite the studio has submitted to you, or are you pitching an original of your own. If it’s a rewrite, and your stock is high with the studio, you can get away with a more limited pitch – i.e. “Here are the three major problems with the existing script and here’s how I would address them.” Your presentation will then likely lead into a more informal conversation with the exec.

However, if it’s an original then your choice is more problematic and the decision to go long or brief depends on a number of factors... How established are you (i.e. how much does the studio already want to be in business with you)? If you are one of the lucky few hot scribes around town then you can probably get away with the ‘less is more’ approach. If not, you might want to incorporate more detail in your presentation. The risk is that you will lose the exec’s attention and give them more to pass on, but the upside is that if you do manage to hold their attention you want them to know that you have this story worked out in enough detail that you feel confident writing it.

Another factor to consider is what kind of story it is. If it’s a rom-com in a familiar setting like a wedding then you probably don’t need to sweat establishing the world in great detail. But if you’re pitching a sci-fi or action film that takes place in an original or arcane world, then you probably want to lead with an explanation of the setting of the story so the exec can better visualize what you are talking about and understand the consequences of your dramatic choices based on the rules of the universe you are drawing from.

However…if I had a gun to my head and had to give you an ideal pitch length, I would say 12 minutes. Beyond that any exec is bound to start wondering whether they’re going to have sashimi or the dragon roll for lunch.

SS: Can you give us any tips for nailing a pitch? It’s such a different art form from writing itself. What do you think the key is?

SO: You have to know your strengths and play to them, and by that same token know your weaknesses and try to avoid them or compensate for them. If you’re good with banter, then reduce the length of your pitch and put more weight on the Q&A with the exec where you respond to their questions and observations on the fly. If you feel more confident memorizing your pitch word for word and creating a more airtight presentation, then go for that. It’s a personal choice. No one size fits all.

In addition, try to get into the pitch itself as quickly as you can. Most execs are busy and under a lot of pressure. They’re only going to be able to listen to so much of you talk, no matter how enthralling you are. Dedicate as many words as you can in the meeting to your story, not how awesome your Cabo bachelor party was or that you just hit level 85 in World of Warcraft.

Lastly, make it personal. You’re trying to convince your audience that you have this story inside of you – that you’re going to burst if you don’t get it out, and that you’re the one person who can tell it. You have to walk into the pitch believing that you’re entering with a briefcase full of diamonds and that they’d be crazy to let you walk out with it. Only never carry a briefcase into a pitch…